Albanian Festival celebrates culture with festivities, food in Worcester

The Albanian Festival taking place this weekend has a family-friendly feel to it.

“Family is the most important part of our culture,” said festival co-chair Greg Steffon.

Presented every other year since 1983 by St. Mary’s Assumption Albanian Orthodox Church of Worcester, 535 Salisbury St., the festival has become one of the largest family-oriented Albanian festivals in the U.S.

On Friday, Albania’s ambassador to the United States, Floreta Faber, had helped kick off this year’s festival on a positive note by saying, “She hasn’t seen an event as big and well-organized as this,” Mr. Steffon said as a busy Saturday was getting underway under nice, bright skies. Crowds of between 10,000 to 15,000 are expected over the three days of the festival, which runs from noon to 6 p.m. Sunday before concluding.

There has been live musical entertainment, dancing and children’s activities, as plenty of ethnic food. Every one has been welcome to join the family.

“I hope that they just really have a nice time, learn about a different culture that they might not have known. It makes the city a fun place to be. Hope they enjoy themselves,” Mr. Steffon said.

Worcester has had a long-standing Albanian community, and it received a new boost in the 1990s when the isolationist and Stalinist dictatorship that had ruled the country for years finally collapsed. This year’s Albanian Festival has about 300 volunteers.

Steffon said there are other Albanian communities in other U.S. cities, “but we’re in a small city and not geographically apart. We’re able to organize it as a community. Everyone lives within 15 minutes of each other.”

Festival co-chair Franklin Zdruli said, “We have a great community. If we don’t have the people behind us, what good is it to try?”

Jorida Qirollari left Albania with her family in 1999 when she was 10 and lived in Greece before moving to the United States 14 years ago. She may not live 15 minutes from St. Mary’s, but she was a volunteer Saturday at one of the food tents (which was also serving Albanian coffee) and is a festival sponsor. Ms. Qirollari has a financial services office in Waltham and is opening a new office in Shrewsbury on Monday.

 “It’s awesome,” she said of the festival. “It’s a great opportunity for people to get together. They can compare traditions.”

She’s been able to do some comparing and contrasting of her own by regularly returning to Albania for visits, something that would have been unthinkable in the days of the iron rule of the late dictator Enver Hoxha.

“The economy is getting better. The mentality is changing. You see the women be more independent. It’s not getting married at 19 years old and having a bunch of kids,” she said. “We are very smart people. We are very hardworking people. We speak more than one language.”

Working with her in the tent was Eni Nano, who came to the United States from Albania when she was exactly 1 year old. She’s lived in Worcester 23 years. Ms. Nano has visited Albania through St. Mary’s youth program.

“It’s beautiful. It still feels like it’s home,” she said. “It’s very different from here. It’s a poor country, but everything’s very beautiful.”

Even with 300 volunteers, organizing the festival is a lot of work. “It’s virtually a full-time job when you’re putting it together,” Mr. Steffon said. He’s working “on getting a new generation to learn how to do it.”

To that end, Patrick Disho and Kevin Sholla, both 14, were helping Mr. Steffon out with numerous tasks on Saturday.

Both seemed willing and were enthused about the festival. “It’s a wonderful experience,” Kevin said.

Asked what he would tell a friend about why he/she should attend, Patrick said, “The culture and the family that we have.”


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